The minute we become willing to write imperfectly, we become able to write. Julia Cameron in The Right to Write.

May we be willing to do a lot more things imperfectly, take all those mad risks and stupid (or so we’re told, or tell ourselves) chances that we’ve always wanted to take, free ourselves from all fear, and take to the skies.

May the force be with you.

Happy New Year 🙂

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Book readings of another kind…

All set to begin…

Who doesn’t love a good story? These kids sure did – and so did the storytellers 🙂

I’d recently volunteered as a ‘Pratham Book Champion’ (part of a reading initiative launched by Pratham publishers) and have blogged about it here:

http://blog.prathambooks.org/2012/09/pratham-books-champion-zainab-sulaiman.html

Super fun and would do it again in a heartbeat.

Cheers!

Goldy wins them all.

Foxy has to be the most annoying dog that’s ever lived. Foxy is a stray who wandered into my in-law’s home one day and has never left thereafter. My pet-deprived kids are of course ecstatic.

Like almost every other family, we do own a gold fish though: one ferocious individual who prowls his fish bowl all day long and attacks – and annihilates – any poor fool who dares enter.

Goldy Gum (that’s his official name) was Ishaan’s birthday present from Regina (our home-grown Mammy) when he turned six. Goldy came with a mate who looked just like him – but who slowly…before our very eyes… shrank into a feeble nothingness and soon after departed for a more equitable world.

‘Mama, Goldy needs a friend!’ the kids wailed every once in a while, and so one day, ‘Amma’ as Reggy is called at home, went out and bought two jet-black shiny little fellows and plopped them in, to many cheers and much excitement.

In a matter of a few moments though, Goldy began chasing one of them – at full throttle –  around the fish bowl, whilst the other chap tried to keep a low profile and discreetly sink to the bottom. Suffice to say the traumatised guests were speedily evacuated and sent back to the aquarium and Goldy went back to his solitary life.

Time is a great healer, and on Ishaan’s 8th birthday, this time, Amma bought him a pair of goldfish (all the better to be friends with, my dear) and two fresh and shiny individuals were introduced with great trepidation into the murky waters of Mr Gum.

Nothing happened. Goldie ignored them and continued to do his own number. We were not to be fooled that easily though. We watched longer this time, and again, nothing happened. Success at last. Yay!

‘What shall we name them?’ the children launched into an argument about who owns who and who should decide who’s name. I kept out of it and went back to my laptop. Life went on.

Until, about an hour later, I reached for the peanuts and caught Goldy redhanded (he resides next to the snack box).

He was bumping one of the goldfish – there is no other word for it…he just kept bumping him around the bowl…and the poor fellow (who was bigger than Goldy)…just kept getting bumped.

‘Stop!’ I yelled. ‘Bad Goldy!’

Goldy of course, ignored me. The goldfish now began to slowly flop over on to his back – and amidst much excited screaming and yelling – we moved the traumatised newbies to a big stainless steel cooking vessel. Slowly, very slowly, Victim No. 1 opened his eyes and managed to upright himself. He even swum a few baby steps around his new home, and we all breathed a sigh of relief and went back to the fish bowl to scold (and secretly marvel) at our very own in-house thug.

Now Goldy reigns supreme. Amma has finally admitted defeat – especially as the goldfish didn’t make it through the night and were found floating belly-up the next morning in the very dish in which she cooks our rice.

As for Foxy, it was soon discovered that ‘he’ was a ‘she’ – much to Ishaan’s disgust and Laila’s delight – and has been rechristened Sparkles (she is only the ugliest dog alive), though she has shown a willingness to answer to any name that falls out of your mouth – including ‘Idiot’ ‘Pain-in-the-…’ and so on – and will jump up at you every two seconds regardless of whether or not you want to pet her or give her a swift kick.

Anyway, looks like we’re stuck with Ms Foxy, especially after she had a small accident (on one of her neighbourhood jaunts) and returned home with half the skin on one of her hind leg’s hanging off – which led to many hospital visits and much bedside care, ensuring that she is now very much part and parcel of the family.

‘Does Foxy drink milk?’ Laila asks me on the way to school today.

‘No, she eats food. She doesn’t really need milk any longer.’

‘But Mama, Doggies also need a milk break,’ Laila replies. ‘They like it.’

And on that note I dropped her off to school.

The Granola story

Ishaan’s off on a school trip on Friday. It’s two days away and he is most excited – especially about the snacks.

‘Can I take chips?’ he asks. ‘And candy?’

The chips are approved and so is ‘some’ candy.

‘I can make you some yummy granola to share with your friends,’ I volunteer. I have been watching too many Nigella Lawson shows and am itching to make something Sweet.

The idea is approved and the next day I get my sous-chef Laila, to help me make my very first granola. I weigh each ingredient out, which she tips into a big yellow plastic bowl. And woe betide anyone who tries to short change her out of even a single step. The honey goes in and the spoon is licked. The brown sugar is thrown in (some of it is quickly eaten behind my back). She discovers she loves the texture and taste of creamy-white oat flakes. The sesame seeds stick to her honeyed fingers and she runs after Amrita, our live-in, and threatens to rub them all over her. The peanuts are shared out amongst us (after all this is hard work) and some of it grudgingly finds its way into the yellow bowl. Then we stir and stir the sticky brown sand till our arms hurt and the dark earthy mass threatens to spill out of the bowl. We dollop the lot into a greased baking tray and pop it into the oven (at 150 degrees centigrade) and sit back and wait.

An hour and fifteen minutes later – the damn thing refuses to turn a lovely golden brown like any self-respecting granola should – I get fed up and yank it out of the oven. It cools quickly and I crack off a chunk.

‘Ooohhh…’ Laila says, not liking the look of it one little bit. ‘It’s black.’

‘But it’s yum,’ I say.

And it’s true. The granola does taste a wee bit burnt, but it’s crunchy and sweet and peanuty – just like Chikki!

‘Try a little.’

She widens her eyes and shakes her head. I keep at it. At last a tiny bit inches towards her mouth. She puts it in and chews.

‘One minute Mama…you stay here.’

She bolts to the bedroom, gives me a smile, and slams the door shut.

Amrita and I look at each other and begin to laugh. She emerges two minutes later, her mouth free of the offensive substance.

‘You spat it out?’ I ask.

‘Ya. It was yuck!’

Ok. Next victim. Ishaan arrives home sweaty and dirty after a lovely romp with his pals. I tell him the Granola is ready and that he can take it on the picnic. But I wisely refrain from asking him to taste it. Maybe someone at school will like it…

In the meantime Rohaan (who is diabetic) and I (who am always watching my weight) proceed to demolish the jar-full of sweet stickiness over the next two days. The Evening-Before-The-Picnic arrives and Ishaan informs me that the granola is off.

‘Don’t feel bad Mama,’ he says with his sweet smile. ‘I tasted it and didn’t like it – so I won’t take it.’

Now who can argue with that? He takes two packs of Poppins instead (today’s kids like Poppins? Yay!) And that’s the end of that.

So I sit down the next day (and as I crunch down a few more pieces) decide on making muffins – a la Nigella – with the remnants.

And guess what? They are awesome! The granola is not over-whelming (for the kids at least) and instantly – with very little effort – jazzes up the rather common-place muffin. I am  convinced that Granola is born to be part of a muffin, and the good news is that the kids walloped it down as well! Success at last.

Now I plan to make Nigella’s Condensed milk Granola bars. I am pretty confident this lot should turn out well – after all, you can’t go wrong with condensed milk, right?

Will keep you posted 🙂

Recipe for Nigella Lawson’s Granola Bars (my slightly modified version) 

Makes enough for 2 greedy adults and 2 reluctant kids.

Oats 150 gms

Peanuts 100 gms (roast them slightly on the tava for more crunch)

Cocoa 25 gms

Sunflower seeds (or any nut) 75 gms

Sesame seeds (til) 50 gms

Apple sauce 50 gms

(Slice & peel 1 apple, put in a covered dish, add just a little water, and microwave for a couple of minutes. Let it cool and blend for applesauce.)

Ground ginger 1/4 tsp

Cinnamon 1/2 tsp (I left it out as I didn’t want it too spicy)

Honey 50 gms

Golden syrup 75 gms (can substitute with honey)

Raisins or dried figs (chopped up) or any dried fruit 75 gms

Oil 3/4th tbsps

Brown sugar 1/4th cup

Salt 1/3rd tsp

Method

Mix everything together. Grease a tray and bake @ 150 c for 45 minutes to an hour. The granola should turn golden brown – though mine never did and still tasted nice. Cool, break it up into pieces, and store in a jar. Tastes great with curd and a generous dob of jam, honey or any fruit preserve thrown in for flavour. Or simply eat plain.

Granola Muffins 

Makes 10 big fat muffins.

Flour 225 gms

Baking soda 1 tsp

Salt 1/2 tsp

Egg 1

Buttermilk 250 ml (mix together 200 ml curd and 50 ml regular milk)

Oil 75 ml

Brown sugar 175 gms

Method

Fold in all the dry items (flour, soda, salt). Keep aside. Fold in all the wet items (including the brown sugar to allow it to dissolve a little). Now pour the wet ingredients into the dry ones and fold in till the dough is a little lumpy (no need to do it with the electric whisk as it will become too smooth). According to Nigella, lumpy muffin dough makes for light and lovely muffins. And she’s right (of course!) Fold in 250 gms of granola. Bake @ 200 c for 20-25 minutes.

Old loves and new friends.

I made a lot of new friends this week-end. Some were familiar faces that I’ve seen all my life – these were the faces I so badly wanted to put a name to. Others were new, hailing from distant exotic lands, but no less loved or welcome.

All this happened one fine morning, thanks to Vijay Thiruvady – who leads the Green Heritage Walk – and took us on a magical stroll as he traced the life and times of the many marvellous trees that dot the lush green expanse of Lalbagh.

As Vijay spoke to us in his low clear voice about how the humble little hillock in Lalbagh is older than Mt. Everest or how the French tricked their farmers into growing potatoes or how he and a group of young school boys hit upon a way to measure the height of the tallest tree in Lalbagh, we were transported back and forth: now we are in the Precambrian…now in 18th century France…now we are very much in the moment as we bend forward and sniff at the pretty yellow flower in front of us as we try and guess the name of the perfume that it has lent its fragrance to.

It’s one hell of a ride and we savour every moment of it.

Best of all, at last, I now know the name of the tall tree I see every where, with leaves that droop downwards rather sorrowfully – an old story goes that the tree went into mourning when Sita was abducted by Ravana – even as it’s slender frame tries to reach out and touch the sky. It’s the Mast tree, so-called because of the use of its tall fine bark in making the masts of ships.

The Mast Tree

It’s a common mistake to call the Mast Tree an Asoka, and in fact, during the walk, we did see an Ashoka tree – the tree Sita spent her captivity under – lit up by luminiscent orange blooms that look nothing like the ‘Ashoka’ that we thought we knew. So there you go. Rediscovered one old friend and made a new one.

The ‘real’ Ashoka.

The Ashoka flower.

Three hours – and many happy discoveries later – our mobile botany cum history lesson culminated in a labyrinth (aka MTR) where we breakfasted on crunchy dosas and hot cups of coffee with a few like-minded souls (or maybe, new friends?) and eagerly planned our next adventure.

(Picture credits: http://saraca-asoca.blogspot.in/2009/10/asoka-and-nettilingam.html)

The many uses of a younger sister

‘I hate cricket,’ Laila proclaims.

Ishaan doesn’t mind. He’s too busy playing with his rowdy friends to care. Then one summer, all the friends vanish. Some have gone away on holiday, some are visiting grandparents, others are busy with various camps. I encourage brother and sister to play together: it’s high time they learn to play with one another.

That night we are watching the IPL.

‘Why don’t you both play cricket?’ I suggest.

Daddy objects. The rules of the house prohibit flying objects. But for once, I plead for leniency. Ishaan promises not to hit any sixes.

Laila picks up a red plastic bat that, if you believed her brother, belonged to him a few decades ago. Ishaan finds a yellow plastic ball. He promises to bowl ‘softly’.  We use the doll’s pink pram as wickets.

Ishaan bowls. Laila gives the ball a whack and it hits the french windows at the other end of the room. Ishaan’s eyes widen and he begins to laugh: he’s impressed. Sister doesn’t take her eyes off the ball. Sixes and fours fly off the old bat. Brother keeps laughing. I can’t help but laugh as well. At last, Sister is bowled – but not without some friction.

Three times Ishaan claims he’s got her ‘leg before wicket!’ Three times the umpire turns down his appeal. The batsman remains stoic through these ups and downs. At last though, she’s out.

Now she bowls. The ball flies through the air: steady and true. He’s clean-bowled on the third ball.

The whole of the next day is spent at my in laws house and is devoted to cricket. I speak to Ishaan on the phone that evening.

‘No Mama,’ he says, ‘we didn’t watch any TV. We played in the compound all day. And Mama…you know…I made 200 runs today!’

‘Wow Ishaan,’ I smile into the phone. ‘You must be really tired.’

‘Ya,’ he says proudly.

‘And what about Laila? How many runs did she make?’ I ask, my voice casual.

‘None,’ he answers. ‘She only bowled.’

One of Life’s great mysteries: What To Pack?!

So what do you pack for the Bornean Rainforest? I trawled through a million websites, agonised over where to buy leech socks, packed 6 long-sleeved shirts (as against my regular lightweight t-shirt/tops) and gloated over my Kindle – no more packing heavy books (and their many back-ups).

I landed in KL, hooked up with Rohaan who had gone ahead on work, and we spent a happy day mall-hopping. We even managed to catch the latest movie, John Carter – that our doorman at the hotel insisted (after the Mayan apocalypse), was the most awaited event of 2012. Our holiday was off and running.

Two days later, we were headed toTurtle Island – but not without some gentle argument about whether we really need to carry along my big black suitcase. Rohaan suggested we pack our stuff into smaller bags as we were spending just one night at the island and  two nights at a resort on the legendary Kinabatangan river. He already had one very heavy backpack full of his toys camera equipment.

‘We can leave the suitcase at the hotel,’ he begged. We were spending a night there after the tour was over.

‘Nonsense’, I insisted. ‘There’s nothing to worry about.’

I mean this was Asia after all. Someone would help us with the bags.

‘Trust me. You won’t have to carry it.’

If only I hadn’t said that. The fun began even before we reached the jetty. The doorman of the hotel (and the cabbie) took one look at the big fat bag resting at our feet and politely stepped aside. Rohaan hauled it into the boot of the car.

‘Let them do it!’ I hissed. As usual I was ignored.

We reached the jetty. It was a small shed with a few boats bobbing about outside on the sea. Our fellow passengers began to trickle in. My blood began to boil. How can you spend even one night at a strange place – miles away from home – and still manage to pack everything into such ridiculously small bags? I looked around for support. Someone must be carrying something bigger.

An Asian couple had a small purple suitcase sitting primly at their feet. It was about the size of the basket that my mum’s Persian cat sleeps in. I looked away. Four friends from Luxembourg were laughing and joking. They were all carrying backpacks that looked smaller than the one Ishaan carries to school. A darling elderly British couple walked in. Ann had hurt her hand (it was a minor fracture). Her arm was in a sling. She carried a smart blue and white handbag on her shoulder. John had a backpack strapped to his back. That was it. Our suitcase meanwhile, stood tall, black, and proud.

Time to go. Rohaan gave me a despairing look. He suggested leaving some of our things behind at the office at the jetty.

‘In what? Plastic bags?’ I sneered. ‘Don’t bother,’ I added. ‘We’ll do what suits us.’

Suffice to say, it was all downhill from there. Rohaan had to carry the suitcase into the boat (where it occupied a full seat) and then off the boat. We lugged it across acres of sandy beach to get to the resort – then lugged it back to the boat the next morning.

I did some deep breathing. Once we’re done with all these damn boats, I thought, we’re home and running. Just one smallish car journey stood between us and the resort at Kinabatangan. Silly me.

Half-way through the drive we were bundled out of the car and made to cross a bridge – ‘So sorry…bridge is repair…’ – that consisted of three planks of wood. We got back into the car, but not before the driver respectfully stood aside and let Rohaan do his thing.

Ok. It has to end now, I thought.

The car stopped soon after. At a jetty. It was the Kinabatangan River resort, you see. So Rohaan carried the bag into one more boat and then out of it – and then we pulled it across many miles of pretty wooden bridges and uneven stone pathways to get to our room.

Oh well. You win some you lose some. But what really hurt (no, I’m not talking about our knees), was the teeny-tiny fact that I had forgotten to pack my swimsuit and cap – I really missed my cap at the Gomantong caves where the bats are freely shitting all over the place. In case you’re wondering, I used an umbrella.

I did carry my sack of beads though (about half-a kgs worth). After all, who knows when you’d need something to trade with the head-hunters, right?

p.s. In my defence, it has been a long time since this old, much-married, mother-of-two has stepped out backpacking, island-hopping or generally doing anything remotely adventurous. The price of motherhood? Naah. I just like to blame the kids.

Can you spot it?

Over the bridge...

And down. Did I forget to mention I carried my purse as well?

And finally...into the boat. The boatman took pity on Rohaan and carried my very own little 'haathi' aka elephant into the boat.

Tuition travails

Ishaan has Hindi tuition twice a week. ‘Miss’ Vasanthi is his tuition teacher. She is an old lady, slim and grey-haired, and extremely serious about the progress of her wards. She is the only teacher I know who has chosen to take on just one child for each class (they last about half-an-hour). She says the kids fool around when they have company. She likes to concentrate on each child for only then can she see results. All of this attention and dedication comes for a princely sum of 300 rupees per month. Suffice to say I adore Miss Vasanthi – though she has expressed her dissatisfaction at my apparent indifference to the methods of teaching at Ishaan’s school.

‘What do you mean they don’t have exams?’ she gasps. ‘How will we know what they’re learning! And what about knowing where he stands compared to the rest of his classmates? And where are his textbooks and notebooks – doesn’t he bring them home? What! No homework! WHY?’

Good point, I murmur, not daring to admit that it’s for this very reason that I decided to put him in this school in the first place. Anyway, Miss Vasanthi (for that’s what we call her – tried Aunty, Ma’am, simple old ‘Miss’ – but nothing else suits her as much), has made amends for this by going out and buying Hindi textbooks and workbooks and notebooks and doling out weekly spelling tests. And of course – she sends back homework.

Now the object of all this devotion, is strangely enough, not as gung-ho as one would imagine. He’s got a minor tendency to avoid as much work as possible, and so, Miss Vasanthi’s homework was being dealt with in his own special way.

Miss Vasanthi called me. ‘He’s not doing his homework,’ she complains. ‘But you don’t keep at him – let him take responsibility and do it himself.’

So I dutifully took him to task, but did not ‘remind’ him to do his homework (ok, I did, but not as much as I would have otherwise) and he began finishing it on time. Or at least that’s what I thought.

Regina, my maid, who in our home is the equivalent of Mammy, accompanies Ishaan to tuition. She tells me a different story. So one time Ishaan decided to bunk class when I was away in Jaipur, and of course, no one thought of informing Miss Vasanthi about this (which is a sure-fire way to piss her off).

Anyway, come next class, and Ishaan’s begging ‘Amma’ as he calls Regina – who is his nanny, friend, foe, and confidant – to tell Miss Vasanthi that he was ill (‘I did have fever that day, no Amma?’).

He’s also scribbling away into a notebook, as they’re been driven to class in an old beat-up jeep by our gardener.

‘Then why were you cycling that evening? And is that your homework?’

‘Yes. But leave all that Amma…just tell her I wasn’t well. Please!’

Amma takes a deep breath. ‘Ok’, she says, ‘But just this once’.

They enter.

‘Why didn’t he come that day?’ Miss Vasanthi asks.

Regina steps forward. ‘Err…he was not feeling well…had fever,’ she says.

Something sprints past them. It’s Ishaan. He’s heading for the bathroom.

Miss Vasanthi and Regina look at each other. They burst out laughing.

‘He’s quite a khiladi, eh?’ Miss Vasanthi says looking amused. Then, she drops the subject.

Amma goes down to wait, and Ishaan saunters out half-an-hour later: the worst behind him. He’s free as a bird, and is now looking forward to an evening of much cycling, fighting and general merry-making, that all little boys of seven live for.

Lekhana: What’s it all about?

The Lekhana literary weekend promised to be interesting. The venue for one, the NGMA, is stunning. The NGMA is currently hosting an exhibition of paintings by Rumale, that in itself is worth a visit. But back to the literary event. Well, it’s no Jaipur. But, having said that, it has many things going for it.

To begin with, it’s more focused on writers, though anyone who loves to read will find it equally enjoyable. It’s also more local: there were many talks and readings in Kannada and some in Urdu. It’s obviously much smaller, which makes it a lot more personal: sort of like attending a talk at a public library. NGMA also has a small canteen that serves up some nice coffee, herbal green tea with honey, and some yummy vada pavs. That’s a big plus 🙂

The discussions were erratic though – some were great (like the panel on translations, the panel on the short story), while others were very average. They had a few author readings (which I bunked), but a nice surprise were the short 5 minute plays that were staged in the courtyard. They were funny, irreverent and well-acted by a skeletal cast of  2 – 3 actors (and put me in a spot when my seven-year old son, who was watching along with me, wanted to know what ‘homophobic’ was).

The best part for me was all the learning. I have added so many more books to my reading list – not least the many translations of classical Kannada and Tamil texts, which just seem so damn interesting! I also discovered the online magazine Outofprint.com which focuses exclusively on short stories – and they’re really good. In a fit of enthusiasm, I have subscribed to a delicious bi-monthly magazine called Books & More (for the princely sum of Rs 180 per year). I have been exposed to the world of self-publishing and e-books (which, btw, with my new Kindle – thank you Rohaan!) I can now download and read. All in all a good weekend, wouldn’t you say?

Brother & sister posing @ the NGMA.

“but for my own part, if a book is well written, I always find it too short.” – Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice was published 200 years ago on this day. Congratulations Ms Austen. That’s a big one 🙂

Couldn’t resist listing a few more – this is the woman who inspired me to write!

“Give a girl an education and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody. ”

― Jane Austen

“I always deserve the best treatment because I never put up with any other.”

― Jane Austen, Emma

“It is only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language”

― Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Nothing ever fatigues me, but doing what I do not like.”

― Jane Austen

“A woman, especially if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.”

― Jane Austen

Love you Jane. RIP.